Wikileaks' release of 250K diplomatic cables constitutes an act of treason against the United States, and renders Julian Assange and other Wikileaks staffers liable to charges punishable by capital punishment.
This falsehood is quite straightforward, and has become a talking point in the mainstream media since Cablegate broke. It finds form in the belief that Julian Assange is a "traitor," or is involved in "treason," or that, more generally, Wikileaks is involved in treason. The falsehood can only be held along with a profound ignorance of the law of treason, or of the relevant facts.
This falsehood has become so prevalent in United States media since Sunday 28 November that it is impossible to trace a comprehensive origin. It emerged from a media climate of growing hyperbole, from veiled suggestions of extrajudicial action from Marc Thiessen and Christian Whiton during the last releases, to the public calls for assassination that are now becoming prevalent.
One prominent airing of the view was by Republican and Representative of the 3rd Congressional District of New York, Peter King, who is also Chairman for the House Homeland Security Committee.
It violates espionage laws. I consider it treason. The fact is, whatever happened here and whoever gave them that information is guilty, to me, of the most detestable, contemptible crime, and we have to take it seriously.
King may have intended to attribute treasonous actions only to the source of the leaks, and not to Wikileaks, but if this is the case, he did not choose his words delicately enough. The subtlety of the distinction between Assange and his source was lost on a great many individuals. The falsehood has now propagated through the social media and the blogosphere, where discussion by civilians is played out. To anyone listening to the tweets of middle America, it is plain that this falsehood is rather prevalent.
A Google search for "Assange Traitor" will now turn up countless articles like this one, from a blogger whose internet publication career betrays associations with David Horowitz and Andrew Breitbart.
The claim is so clearly false as to be comical. Three simple propositions illustrate its absurdity.
It's worth having a look at some American law on treason. The United States Code, Title 18, Part I, Chapter 115, § 2381 states:
Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.
The crime of treason is limited by the United States Constitution, Article 3, Section 3, which states:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.
The above restraint on the definition of treason entails that even were Assange an American citizen, he could not be held to be guilty of treason, since the express goal of Wikileaks' activity as regards the United States is not to make war against the United States, nor to give aid or comfort to its enemies, but variously, reform, the cessation of illegal activity within the United States government, a more informed public, a stronger press, and the adherence of the United States to the laws set out in its own Constitution, which Assange has personally cited on countless occasions.
[W]e are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction...
So if you want to talk about the law, it's very important to remember the law is not what, not simply what, powerful people would want others to believe it is. The law is not what a general says it is. The law is not what Hillary Clinton says it is. The law is not what a bank says it is. The law, rather, is what the Supreme Court in [the] land in the end says it is, and the Supreme Court in the case of the United States has an enviable Constitution on which to base its decisions. And that Constitution comes out of a revolutionary movement and has a Bill of Rights appraised by James Madison and others that includes a nuanced understanding for the balancing of power of [the] states in relation to the government. Now, whether the Supreme Court makeup now is such that it keeps to its traditions or proposes a radical reassessment of the power of the First Amendment and the U.S. Constitution remains to be seen. However, the U.S. Espionage Act is widely viewed to be overbroad, and that is perhaps one of the reasons it has never been properly tested in the Supreme Court. I think it was maybe found to be unconstitutional and struck out. Now we understand that there are attempts by [Attorney General Eric] Holder and others in the U.S. Administration to shoehorn the Espionage Act, Section G in particular, onto legitimate press functions. Those efforts are dangerous in the sense that they may give rise to a Supreme Court challenge, which throws out the Espionage Act, or at least that section, in its entirety. If that succeeds, that will of course only be good business for WikiLeaks, because the rest of the U.S. press will be further constrained and people will simply come to us.
It is manifestly false that Julian Assange is a traitor, or that Wikileaks is engaged in activity against the United States that, were it an American entity, would render it liable to prosecution for treason.
Addendum: Some might claim that Assange might still be a traitor, since Cablegate contains sensitive diplomatic material pertaining to Australian interests. On this matter, and also the matter of whether Assange or Wikileaks have violated any Australian law, please see this article, by legal scholar Ben Saul.